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Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden participate in a Democratic debate on Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. (AP) Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden participate in a Democratic debate on Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. (AP)

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden participate in a Democratic debate on Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. (AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson March 10, 2020

Is there no policy daylight between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, as RNC says?

If Your Time is short

• The Republican National Committee’s email accurately portrays the policy similarities between Biden and Sanders on several issues, including abortion, the Green New Deal, the death penalty, an assault-weapons ban, and detention of undocumented immigrants.

• However, the email overlooks notable differences between Biden and Sanders on other issues, including tax policy, free college tuition, and two aspects of their health insurance plan. It also incorrectly describes the position of both candidates on reparations for slavery.

 

The Republican National Committee didn’t waste much time after the Democratic presidential race narrowed to two main candidates to paint Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders with the same brush. 

A mass email sent by the RNC on March 5 began with the subject line, "Biden and Bernie, two sides of the same coin." It offered about a dozen policy issues where — according to the email at least — the two Democrats had identical stances. The issues include taxes, health care, the Green New Deal, federal abortion funding, the death penalty, and guns.

"It’s official, the Democrat Party is now deciding which near octogenarian career politician will be their nominee," the email said. "And those aren’t the only similarities between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. … There is no so-called ‘moderate’ option for Democrats. Just radicalism."

We decided to take a closer look at the email, issue by issue. Here’s what we found.

Claims from the email that inaccurately equate Biden’s and Sanders’ positions

Claim: "Biden: The ‘the first thing I would do’ is raise middle class taxes. Bernie says he will raise taxes on anyone making over $29,000."

One of Sanders’ options for paying for his Medicare for All proposal is to add an additional 4 percentage points to existing income tax rates for those who earn more than $29,000. So while this is not a guarantee, it is one option Sanders has suggested.

Biden hasn’t proposed anything like this. In fact, his tax plan would increase the top marginal rate from 37% to 39.6%, affecting those who earn more than $400,000 — not exactly a middle-class income level. Other aspects of Biden’s tax plan target provisions of special interest to higher-income individuals and corporations, such as capital gains taxes, corporate tax rates, and additional payroll taxes for high earners.

***

Claim: "Biden supports government health care for illegal immigrants. Bernie supports government health care for illegal immigrants."

When we asked the RNC about the assertion about Biden, they pointed to a June 2019 debate in which NBC’s Savannah Guthrie asked all candidates to raise their hand "if your government plan would provide coverage for undocumented immigrants." Biden and Sanders, among others, raised their hands.

However, this glosses over some nuances in their positions.

Sanders would provide coverage to undocumented immigrants under his single-payer insurance plan; he has tweeted, "If you are a human being, regardless of your immigration status, you have a right to health care." 

Biden would not go quite that far.

Under Biden’s proposal, undocumented immigrants would be able to buy insurance from the Affordable Care Act marketplaces — from which they are currently barred — but would not be able to receive federal subsidies that make these plans affordable.  If undocumented immigrants bought plans without subsidies, they wouldn’t be receiving government health care, as the email claims — they would be signing up for private insurance plans in the marketplace.

***

Claim: "Biden supports a government takeover of health care. Not only does Biden’s plan not allow Americans to keep their private health insurance, it guarantees ‘massive disruptions to private coverage.’ Bernie supports a government takeover of health care. Bernie’s health care agenda eliminates private health insurance."

Sanders would create a single-payer system in which the government acts as the health insurer for everyone, effectively supplanting most private insurance. This plan would "provide everyone in America with comprehensive health care coverage, free at the point of service," Sanders’ campaign website says

Biden offers a more modest alternative, in which individuals could voluntarily buy in to the federal Medicare program for their insurance. Under Biden’s proposal, private insurance would remain part of the health insurance market. "Instead of starting from scratch and getting rid of private insurance, he has a plan to build on the Affordable Care Act by giving Americans more choice, reducing health care costs, and making our health care system less complex to navigate," Biden’s campaign website says.

***

Claim: "Biden supports free college. Bernie supports free college."

This is substantially misleading. Sanders would "guarantee tuition and debt-free public colleges, universities," trade schools, and historically black colleges. Biden’s proposals apply only to community colleges. Biden would provide "two years of community college or other high-quality training program without debt for any hard-working individual."

Claims from the email that are wrong about the positions of both Biden and Sanders

Claim: "Biden supports reparations. Bernie supports reparations."

Biden and Sanders have both said they support an official process to study the question of whether the descendants of slaves should receive reparations, but it’s too strong a statement to say they support the idea.

As recently as 2019, Sanders was dismissive of reparations, but he later announced his support for a bill that would establish a commission to study the issue.

Biden, meanwhile, told the Washington Post that his administration would "study how reparations may be part of" efforts to curb racism "and ensure the voices of descendants are central when gathering data and information." The Biden campaign also told Vice that he thinks the U.S. should "gather the data necessary to have an informed conversation about reparations."

***

Claims from the email that accurately portray Biden’s and Sanders’ positions

Claim: "Biden promised to end illegal immigration detention ‘across the board,’ and to not deport illegal immigrants who have committed felony-like offenses in other countries. Bernie backs a moratorium on all deportations of illegal immigrants in U.S. and says that it is not ‘appropriate’ to deport illegal immigrants not following law in the U.S."

This is largely accurate. The email cites a comment by Biden at a Vice News event when he was asked, "How exactly would you detain immigrants?" He said, "I would not retain them behind bars … They show up, and you have an ankle bracelet (and) you set a hearing. We have to surge to the border, to the areas where people are being held. Get rid of all the cages, everybody out of prisons. The most you put on is an ankle bracelet, and you give a date when you show up for an immigration hearing, and you show up." Asked whether that was for adults and children, Biden said, "across the board."

The email also cited a separate town hall comment by Biden in which he promised that in his first 100 days in office, deportations would only be carried out for felonies committed in the United States.

Sanders, for his part, says on his website that he would "dismantle" deportation programs and detention centers and "institute a moratorium on deportations until a thorough audit of past practices and policies is complete."

***

Claim: "Biden supports the Green New Deal, "radical decarbonization," and eliminating fossil fuels even if that means sacrificing hundreds of thousands of blue-collar jobs. Bernie supports the Green New Deal, eliminating fossil fuels, and is okay with sacrificing American jobs for his climate agenda."

Sanders is a proud supporter of the Green New Deal — he is a leading co-sponsor of the Senate version of the resolution, which is an aspirational document that sets goals for combating climate change through reductions in carbon emissions, increased energy efficiency, and expansions of clean-energy infrastructure.

Biden isn’t as vocal a supporter of the legislation specifically, but he has name-checked the plan on his campaign website and echoed some of its language in his climate change policy.

"Biden believes the Green New Deal is a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face," Biden’s campaign website says. "It powerfully captures two basic truths, which are at the core of his plan: (1) the United States urgently needs to embrace greater ambition on an epic scale to meet the scope of this challenge, and (2) our environment and our economy are completely and totally connected." Among other things, Biden seeks to achieve a "100% clean energy economy" later than 2050. 

The email is also correct that Biden responded affirmatively to a question in a Democratic debate that he’s OK with thousands or even hundreds of thousands of job losses in carbon-based energies as part of the transition to renewable energy.

***

Claim: "Biden supports federal funds for abortions after repealing the Hyde Amendment. Bernie supports federal funding for abortions as well as the repealing of the Hyde Amendment."

Repealing the decades-old Hyde Amendment — which bars the use of federal funds for abortions — is a goal Biden and Sanders share. Biden is a relatively recent convert to this position. After sustaining attacks from other Democratic presidential candidates, including Sanders, Biden announced in June 2019 that he would be seeking an end to the restriction.

***

Claim: "Biden supports an end to the death penalty. Bernie wants to end the death penalty."

This is another issue both candidates agree on. Biden’s campaign website says that he would "eliminate the death penalty" by ending it at the federal level and encourage states to do the same. Death row inmates would instead serve life sentences without parole.

***

Claim: "Biden supports a federal ‘assault weapon’ ban. Bernie supports a federal ‘assault weapon’ ban."

The two candidates agree on this as well. Biden’s website says he supports a ban on the manufacture and sale of assault weapons. He would also seek to tighten regulation of existing assault weapons and pursue buybacks.

Sanders’ proposals are essentially identical: Banning the sale and distribution of assault weapons, tightening regulations and implementing a buyback program.

Our ruling

The Republican National Committee said in a mass email that on about a dozen issues, there is "no daylight between" Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden.

The email accurately portrays the candidates’ similarities on roughly half of the issues cited, including their positions on federal abortion funding, ending the death penalty, banning assault weapons, and the Green New Deal.

However, the email is incorrect on a similar number of other issues, including taxes, health care, free college tuition, and reparations for slavery.

On balance, we rate the statement Half True.

Our Sources

Republican National Committee, mass email, March 5, 2020

Joe Biden, issues page, accessed March 9, 2020

Bernie Sanders, campaign website, accessed March 9, 2020

Bernie Sanders, tweet, June 21, 2019

Urban Institute-Brookings Institution, "Where the 2020 Presidential Candidates Stand on Tax Policy," March 5, 2020

Money, "Most Americans Want the Rich to Pay Higher Taxes, According to Every Poll Everywhere," Jan. 20, 2020

Politico, "Soak the rich? Americans say go for it," Feb. 4, 2019

Forbes, "Tale Of The Tape: Comparing The Tax Plans Of Joe Biden And Bernie Sanders," March 6, 2020

Politico, "Biden unveils health care plan: Affordable Care Act 2.0," July 15, 2019

Axios, "Reparations: Where the 2020 Democratic candidates stand," "April 13, 2019

The Hill, "Reparations bill wins new momentum in Congress," April 4, 2019

Washington Post, "Where Democrats Stand: Reparations," accessed March 9, 2020

Politico, "Candidates' Views on the Issues: Reparations," Aug. 8, 2019

NPR, "Climate Issues: Where 2020 Democrats Stand On The Green New Deal And More," Sept. 11, 2019

Washington Post, "Americans like Green New Deal’s goals, but they reject paying trillions to reach them," Nov. 27, 2019

New York Times, "Joe Biden Denounces Hyde Amendment, Reversing His Position," June 6, 2019

The View, tweet, March 1, 2019

Fusion.tv, "Bernie Sanders has a direct answer on reparations at Iowa forum," accessed March 9, 2020

CNN-SSRS, poll, June 2019 

NPR-PBS-Marist, poll, July 2019 

Marist poll, 2019

Gallup, historical polling on the death penalty, accessed March 9, 2020

Gallup, historical polling on an assault weapons ban, accessed March 9, 2020 

Email interview with Steve Guest, Republican National Committee research department, March 10, 2020

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